Local Time

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

PM Wades Into Veil Row

PM Wades Into Veil Row

Updated: 18:48, Tuesday October 17, 2006

Tony Blair has joined the Muslim veil row by insisting the garment represents "a mark of separation" from the rest of society.

He was asked at his monthly news conference whether a woman who wore the veil could make a full contribution to society.

And he said the sight of it made people from outside the Muslim community "uncomfortable".

"No one wants to say that people don't have the right to do it," he said.

"That is to take it too far. But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society."

Lawyers for a teaching assistant who has been suspended after refusing to remove her veil during lessons have called Mr Blair's comments "irresponsible". They are considering seeking an injunction against the Prime Minister to stop him saying anything further about the case.

On health, Mr Blair predicted that there would be only "a few hundred" compulsory redundancies in the NHS this year, not the tens of thousands of job cuts claimed by the Conservatives.

Tory leader David Cameron has said the current financial crisis in the health service is to cost 20,000 jobs - a figure which managers' organisation NHS Employers said "may turn out to not be too far off the total reduction in workforce numbers this year".

Newly-appointed NHS chief executive David Nicholson insisted that the true number of jobs lost would be "significantly less" than the figure of 20,000, but admitted that he did not know what the final figure would be.

On the continuing row over British troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Blair pledged his forces would not "walk away" from either conflict until their job is complete.

He said: "If we walk away before the job is done from either of those two countries, we will leave a situation in which the very people we are fighting everywhere, including the extremism in our own country, are heartened and emboldened and we can't afford that to happen.

"So we have got to see that job through."

His comments follow a warning last week by the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, that the British presence in Iraq was exacerbating the difficulties the UK faced around the world.

Blair backs suspension of class assistant in debate over veil

· PM says integration and achievement go together
· Talk of 20,000 job cuts in NHS rejected

Will Woodward, chief political correspondent
Wednesday October 18, 2006

The Guardian

Tony Blair yesterday said he backed a council which suspended a Muslim classroom assistant for refusing to remove her veil, as part of what he described as a difficult but necessary debate about how Islam integrates into British society and the modern world. The prime minister said the niqab worn by some Muslim women was "a mark of separation and that is why it makes other people from outside of the community feel uncomfortable" - words likely to anger some religious leaders.

Asked if it was possible for a woman wearing a veil to make a full contribution to British society, Mr Blair said it was "a very difficult question ... no one wants to say that people don't have the right to do it. That is to take it too far. But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society.
"All the evidence is that when people do integrate more, they achieve more as well. It's a very, very sensitive issue; all I'm saying is we need to have this debate about integration. I'm not saying anyone should be forced to do anything."

Mr Blair said he could "see the reason" why Kirklees council had suspended Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.

Ms Azmi has taken the council to an employment tribunal and Mr Blair said he was mindful of that. He did not go as far as the communities minister, Phil Woolas, in calling for her to be sacked. But he said he "fully" supported Kirklees. "I simply say that I back their handling of the case. I can see the reason why they came to the decision they did." Last night Ms Azmi's lawyer said he was considering taking an injunction against Mr Blair to stop him saying more about the case.

The prime minister said Ms Azmi's case, along with Jack Straw's decision to ask

women to remove their veils in his constituency surgeries and the row over British Airways' ban on a staff member wearing a cross, were part of a broader debate which was "happening in a very haphazard way".

The debate was about the degree of integration by Muslims, and - within the Muslim community itself - about "how Islam comes to terms with and is comfortable with the modern world".

The debate had begun long before ministers contributed and was going on in different forms across the developed world - in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark - as well as in Kuwait and other parts of the Middle East.

Downing Street said later that ministers had not engineered the debate, but nor could they shy away from it. "It isn't just a debate that affects Muslims, it's also a debate which affects non-Muslims," the prime minister's official spokesman said. "You can't just put your head in the sand and say these issues don't exist."

In the first of his monthly press conferences since the September revolt in Labour ranks which saw him announce his departure within a year, Mr Blair was not asked any questions about how long he intended to stay in office. After presentations from the chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, and David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS, on health service reform he said reports of up to 20,000 job losses in the NHS were way out and the true figure for compulsory redundancies would be closer to a "few hundred".

In answer to several questions about comments by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, last week, that the presence of British forces in Iraq exacerbated violence, he insisted that both he and the military believed their contribution was helpful.

In his own words

Blair on Afghanistan and Iraq

"What we have got to do is see that job through."

On NHS job cuts

"Most (are) vacancies not being filled or posts that are being transferred. Compulsory redundancies (are) a few hundred, not 20,000."

On Schools

"On any definition, results are improving."

On David Blunkett's revelations

"I have other things to think about."


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